Double Variant Found in 61% Samples in Maha: All You Should Know

4 min read

(INTERVIEW/PRODUCER: Devina Buckshee  VIDEO EDITOR: Sandeep Suman and Deepthi Ramdas)

As India struggles to contain its second wave, new data by the National Institute of Virology (NIV) shows that perhaps variants are behind the spike in cases.

From January to March, 220 out of 361 - that is 61 per cent - of the Covid-19 samples from Maharashtra were genome sequenced and found to have the double mutation E484Q and L452R, now classified as B.1.617 lineage, reported News18. However, the central government has not yet linked these to the surge.

Variant of Concern or Not?

There remains some official confirmation on whether the mutation is linked to the second wave but health officials in Maharashtra believe this to be true as they scramble to control the surge in the state.

Reportedly, NIV officials verbally announced the new data to state officials on 10 April but Health Minister Rajesh Tope has said they are awaiting further confirmations from the central government. Officials want to determine the cause of the spike and change the strategy but as per Scroll, Maharashtra Health Secretary Dr Pradeep Vyas said, “The Centre has maintained that there is no need to change the strategy.”

Last month, on 24 March, the health ministry announced that genome sequencing by the Indian SARS-CoV-2 Consortium on Genomics (INSACOG) has shown variants of concern (VOCs) and a novel double mutant variant in India. The centre found mutations in 15-20 per cent of cases from Maharashtra but did not link them to the wave at the time.

What does this mean and should we be worried as a second wave begins to unfurl? FIT speaks to by virologist and director of the Trivedi School of Biosciences at Ashoka University, Dr Shahid Jameel to find out more.

The three variants of concern found are ones we have seen outside of India:

  • UK variant
  • South African variant
  • Brazil variant

Where this gets concerning, is the double mutation found. Dr Jameel explains, “ The mutation called E484Q is a novel combination that has not been seen and it has been found in 15-20% of cases that are being sequenced.”

“It looks as if there is an Indian lineage emerging at this point.”
Dr Shahid Jameel, virologist and director of the Trivedi School of Biosciences at Ashoka University

‘Double Mutation’ Explained

“Once a single mutation is selected another mutation could happen in that virus, it can also become a triple virus and become a distinct lineage.”
Dr Shahid Jameel, virologist and director of the Trivedi School of Biosciences at Ashoka University

The double mutation found - B.1.617 - comprises of two variants of the virus - making it a distance lineage. These include the E484Q mutation which is similar to another variant, the E484K, found in the fast-spreading Brazilian and South African variants of concern. It also includes the L452R mutation which helps the virus escape our body’s natural immune response.

In an interview with IANS, Dr Jameel says, “The "double mutant" is a misnomer. This has now been defined as a distinct lineage called B.1.617 (just like the UK variant is called B.1.1.7). Viruses of this lineage have 15 mutations, of which 6 make changes to the Spike protein - and 3 are critical. The mutations L452R and E484Q are in the region of the Spike protein that binds to the ACE2 receptor - the first mutation increases ability of the virus to enter cells and the second one accounts for partial immune evasion. Another mutation called P681R also makes virus entry into cells more efficient. The combined effect is a virus that infects more (i.e. more infectious) and also partially evades some neutralizing antibodies. This inference is based on earlier studies of these mutations. The Indian B.1.617 variant has so far not been grown in labs to directly test its properties. That work is going on.”

Another example is the UK variant which has 23 mutations and different lineages. Out of these 23, 17 mutations that make a change in the protein that the virus makes. Out of these 17, 8 mutations are present in the spike protein of the virus.

Mutations Are Natural; So When Should We Worry?

Dr Jameel explains that mutations are natural phenomena. “Some are selected as they provide some positive effect on the virus. This is what’s happening with these mutant lineages. If the mutation was detrimental to the virus we don’t see it because it will not survive.”

The health ministry said that, 5-6 per cent of mutation is normal. But when it impacts public health or results in increased transmission is when it is concerning.” Since mutations are natural, tracking and tracing becomes important and that reveals more information.

New Mutation From Southern India

“There is another mutation emerging from South India called N443K,” says Dr Jameel. “All of these mutations are in the region of the virus surface where antibodies bind to neutralise the virus, so it will have an effect.”

How much of an effect will depend on which mutation, or rather which combination of mutations.

“Multiple mutations are a matter of concern.”
Dr Shahid Jameel, virologist and director of the Trivedi School of Biosciences at Ashoka University

“The Virus Cannot Mutate Forever”

“After a while, these mutations become detrimental to the virus and this is natural in evolution. We are seeing this because there are over 11 million cases in India.”

“There is no cause for worry but cause for concern. Instead of worrying, the best thing we can dois follow COVID appropriate behaviour.”
Dr Shahid Jameel, virologist and director of the Trivedi School of Biosciences at Ashoka University

“The pandemic will be over soon but not yet,” adds Dr Jameel.

So mask up, maintain social distance and hand hygiene to help curb the rising cases.

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